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Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure [Paperback]

Sarah Macdonald
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 13 2004
In her twenties, journalist Sarah Macdonald backpacked around India and came away with a lasting impression of heat, pollution and poverty. So when an airport beggar read her palm and told her she would return to India—and for love—she screamed, “Never!” and gave the country, and him, the finger.

But eleven years later, the prophecy comes true. When the love of Sarah’s life is posted to India, she quits her dream job to move to the most polluted city on earth, New Delhi. For Sarah this seems like the ultimate sacrifice for love, and it almost kills her, literally. Just settled, she falls dangerously ill with double pneumonia, an experience that compels her to face some serious questions about her own fragile mortality and inner spiritual void. “I must find peace in the only place possible in India,” she concludes. “Within.” Thus begins her journey of discovery through India in search of the meaning of life and death.

Holy Cow is Macdonald’s often hilarious chronicle of her adventures in a land of chaos and contradiction, of encounters with Hinduism, Islam and Jainism, Sufis, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians and a kaleidoscope of yogis, swamis and Bollywood stars. From spiritual retreats and crumbling nirvanas to war zones and New Delhi nightclubs, it is a journey that only a woman on a mission to save her soul, her love life—and her sanity—can survive.

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From Publishers Weekly

Australian radio correspondent Macdonald's rollicking memoir recounts the two years she spent in India when her boyfriend, Jonathan, a TV news correspondent, was assigned to New Delhi. Leaving behind her own budding career, she spends her sabbatical traveling around the country, sampling India's "spiritual smorgasbord": attending a silent retreat for Vipassana meditation, seeking out a Sikh Ayurvedic "miracle healer," bathing in the Ganges with Hindus, studying Buddhism in Dharamsala, dabbling in Judaism with Israeli tourists, dipping into Parsi practices in Mumbai, visiting an ashram in Kerala, attending a Christian festival in Velangani and singing with Sufis. Paralleling Macdonald's spiritual journey is her evolution as a writer; she trades her sometimes glib remarks ("I've always thought it hilarious that Indian people chose the most boring, domesticated, compliant and stupidest animal on earth to adore") and 1980s song title references (e.g., "Karma Chameleon") for a more sensitive tone and a sober understanding that neither mocks nor romanticizes Indian culture and the Western visitors who embrace it. The book ends on a serious note, when September 11 shakes Macdonald's faith and Jonathan, now her husband, is sent to cover the war in Afghanistan. Macdonald is less compelling when writing about herself, her career and her relationship than when she is describing spiritual centers, New Delhi nightclubs and Bollywood cinema. Still, she brings a reporter's curiosity, interviewing skills and eye for detail to everything she encounters, and winningly captures "[t]he drama, the dharma, the innocent exuberance of the festivals, the intensity of the living, the piety in playfulness and the embrace of living day by day..--he drama, the dharma, the innocent exuberance of the festivals, the intensity of the living, the piety in playfulness and the embrace of living day by day."
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Australian MacDonald didn't fall in love with India her first time there, at age 21. So when her boyfriend, Jonathan, a reporter for ABC, is sent there for work, she reluctantly follows after a year of separation. At first, life in India is as bad as she remembered it--overcrowded, smoggy, disturbing. A serious bout of pneumonia puts her in an Indian hospital, but as she recovers, she begins to make friends in India and to understand the culture. She finds herself attending lavish Indian weddings and trying to comfort her friend Padma, whose mother commits suicide after Padma marries without her permission. MacDonald makes an effort to understand the many diverse religions of the area, including taking a 10-day sojourn in a Buddhist temple and discussing religion with Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and even a group of visiting Israelis. With Jonathan, she takes a trip to war-torn Kashmir, an area that is at once achingly beautiful and devastatingly dangerous. A lively, snappy travelogue. Kristine Huntley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Please stay in Oz July 18 2004
This book seems to have caused great offence - due either to its cover or its content, or both. I'm neither a Hindu nor Indian so I've no idea whether or not the cover is offensive. However, the UK version appears different to the US one, which gives rise to the question: did anyone bother to check before it was published in the US?
Skipping past the issue of the cover, what of the content? Well, I thought that there was little in the book which taught me anything more about India than I'd read elsewhere (for example by Mark Tully and William Dalrymple). Thus once again you get a description of the Kumbh Mela, a trip to Kashmir, visits to ashrams - pretty much the usual stuff. The difference is that those other writers did it better, with deeper insight, greater balance and more respect for their subject.
Much of the writing and observations in this book are distinctly shallow - the trip to Mumbai to learn about the Parsis, and the ravings about Sikhs made my toes curl. In different ways, the author did a disservice to both. Apparently India is a "land of contrasts" - a stunning insight. Whether or not her descriptions of the attitudes exhibited to her by Indian men are true, I don't know. Neither do I know whether she is stunningly attractive, or whether the appearance of any white woman in India is enough to send Mr Average Indian into a sexual frenzy, but it did seem a bit far-fetched to depict every Indian as a lecher. Oh, and apparently it's OK to ogle Ms MacDonald so long as you do it in Sydney!
The author goes to various ashrams and religious establishments, arrives sceptically, is moved by the experience, then shakes it all off. Or not - she blames a sadhu for her pneumonia and a Hindu saint for her expanding boobs. Large sections of the book are devoted to how she looks, how her friends look, and recounting screechy conversations between the girls. All very irritating, shallow and vain.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An critical appreciation of Indian spirituality June 20 2004
Before I present my review, I just want to say that some people are taking this book too seriously. I majored in religion in college, yet I was impressed with how well Macdonald does in summing up complicated faiths (or sects of faiths), even if I could quibble with a few of her comments. And she zeroes in on philosophical problems in these faiths effortlessly, leaving bare to all the perils of religious fundamentalism. She's just as critical, if not more so, of her own cultural tradition, Christianity, as she is of the others. The U.S. book cover already has the funamentalists seeing red (or pink glasses as it were), but much worse things have been done with pictures (and plays and movies)of Jesus. My own influences are the hippie movement (counter culture), devotional yoga, comparitive religion, and I think Westerners who share these interests will like this book. It also helps if you can look at the negative side of religion without being offended, and have a sense of humor. This book will delight the spiritually eclectic as much as it will offend exclusivists/fundamentalists in each religion she tackles.

I just finished reading "Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure," a memoir by Sarah Macdonald. I have to say I wholeheartedly recommend the book to Indiophiles everywhere. I suspect that we all could write our own book on what this amazing country and its plethora of religions has taught us. (In fact, most of us will have learned these lessons, just from reading, before we ever set foot on the subcontinent.) It's very light reading-- you'll get hooked and finish it in a week-- not like a heavy philosophical text, not even an "Autobiography of a Yogi.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Good writer but tabula rasa June 9 2004
By A Customer
I have to say that Sarah MacDonald is a good, zippy writer and reporter. I've traveled in India and have had similar experiences, only I was there more than ten years ago. It's interesting for me to see how India's tourist sites have stayed the same (the Taj) and have changed (MacLeod Ganj bursting at the seams). My criticism of the book is that MacDonald seems desperate to glom onto whatever religious or spiritual stream into which she dips her toe, without much knowledge of the traditions and history of any religion. That usually leads to generalizations that just aren't true for the religion as a whole. Being Jewish, I noticed this when she wrote about Judaism: she saw the Jewish representatives in one town in India as Judaism....such extreme sides....it made me laugh. Ditto when she described how they were trying to keep milk products separate from vegetables: vegetables are parve, so you don't have to keep them separate. It kind of made me suspicious of her forays into other religions, some of which I know a little about. Her description of the Parsis was particularly unfair (with a very racist description of their physical characteristics). Her descriptions made other religions seems exotic, which was fine for entertainment value but certainly not true if you really study each religion. But that was not her goal; it was a travel book, which by its nature is superficial. That said, it was an entertaining read.
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I did not know what to think about this book - I bought it because the cover jumped out at me and I have never done that before! Ms. MacDonald's storytelling is crisp and she chooses words that create a picture in the mind's eye of exactly what she is seeing, hearing and smelling at any given point. I did not find her characterization of Indians to be condescending and she admits in the book that it is SHE who is the judgmental one. She wants to understand her new home but has trouble with the exotic and strange foods, cultural taboos, accents, weather, etc. I did not feel that she considered the Indians to be anything less than exuberant, interesting, friendly people who make do living in a nation of a billion people. Her love of Bollywood musicals is obvious and she wants to learn to dance like the actors in the films so she will not seem too foreign to her new friends. She also learns a lot of Hindi.
Ms. Macdonald's book is more than a study of the exterior world of India, however. She delves into the spiritual world of the people and comes out a more patient, loving, peaceful person. No stone is left unturned as she visits Parsees (India's Zoroastrians), Jains, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and those who follow particular gurus and make treks to ashrams in search of meaning, transcendence and, in one ashram's case, some hash and sex. Her evolution from cocky Australian atheist to humble Australian theist is touching, as we see her wall of disbelief crumble brick by brick with each new experience. She also sees her western, self-centered relationship with her husband take on a new side when she spends so much time away from him (he is a journalist with the Aust. Broadcasting Co.)as he travels from international crisis to international crisis.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Received in good condition.
Published 9 days ago by Taryn DeCicco
1.0 out of 5 stars Not a good journey
I was hopeful at the beginning that this book would give some humourous insights to the vast and wonderous land that is India. But it was not to be. Read more
Published on March 11 2012 by Jan
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful
I happened upon this book one day in a Chapters bookstore, attracted by the title and the cover. I have a place in my heart for India and it's people, though I have never been... Read more
Published on April 23 2011 by Ian Murray
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Fun!
I too have lived in India as a Western foreigner. I got this book during one of my living experiences there and laughed out loud regularly while reading it. Read more
Published on Feb. 23 2009 by Lucy Morris
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book
Must read for people planning to travel to India.
Published on Feb. 16 2006 by Samir Panday
5.0 out of 5 stars Must Read for India visitors
Amazing book i picked it up on Amsterdam airport could not put it down till i finished it. Must read for someone planning to visit India.
Published on Feb. 15 2006 by Samir Panday
5.0 out of 5 stars Only for I-Love-Travel-Divas...
Are you happiest when you have a backpack strapped to your back with a sense of adventure in your heart? Then this book is for you.
Especially if... Read more
Published on Aug. 31 2005 by greenshag.ca - creative director
5.0 out of 5 stars Great fun and honest memoir
The people that rate this book (and tell Sarah to go to hell) seem to be taking someone else's experiences rather personally. Read more
Published on July 16 2004
2.0 out of 5 stars Not her fault!
Sarah obviously sees the world through the Western norms and thus cannot understand what makes India or for that matter other multi-cultures tick. Read more
Published on July 15 2004
2.0 out of 5 stars A book to read after you visit India
Having lived in India for years I approached the book with hightened expectations that I never found. I have yet to find a book that captures the feel of India in words. Read more
Published on July 4 2004 by G. Goodwood
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